HC Deb 22 February 1825 vol 12 cc617-21

Sir John Newport moved for leave to bring, in a bill, amending the law with respect to Parish Vestries and Assessments in Ireland. To induce the House to countenance the introduction of this measure, it would be necessary for him to show that the existing mode of regulating parish business in Ireland was objectionable. It was most objectionable, upon two grounds; first, there was no control as to the levy of the rate; and next, there was no sufficient responsibility as to the disposal of the money when collected. A great deal of difficulty as to all church matters must no doubt continue to exist in Ireland, so long as the religious parties of that country remained in their present anomalous situation. He knew that he should have to meet this plea; and also to contend with gentlemen, whose opinions upon the general question of Catholic rights were opposed to those which he supported; but he still believed that he should produce some facts, of a description so entirely conclusive, as that all parties must concur in the necessity of immediate investigation and reform. In the days of king William, and of queen Ann, the Catholics, of Ireland, as well as the Protestants had still the power of voting in vestries. It was not until the reign of George 1st, that that power had been taken away. One of the last acts of the expiring parliament of Ireland had been to unite a variety of parishes, on different pretences? one to another. The extent of some had been so increased by that arrangement, as to exceed sometimes twenty, or even five-and-twenty miles: and one crying evil arising out of that course had been, that people residing at one end of a parish were constantly compelled to pay for works or repairs done to a church at another; while, to that very building, which was raised at their cost, it was impossible, in the nature of things, that they could ever have access. It might be recollected, that in the last session he had moved for returns generally, of church-rates levied in Ireland within the last ten years. Those returns were extremely voluminous. A very few items selected from the account would be sufficient to show, that even the statute law made to regulate the conduct of vestries in Ireland was every day evaded, or openly set at defiance. One statute had fixed the salary of parish clerks, and had declared that in no instance it should exceed a given amount. That same law made a distinction between the payment at churches where the service was weekly only, and those at which it took place every day. Now, he would show at once, not merely that the salary fixed for daily duty had been given where the duty was only done on Sunday, but that even the utmost amount allowed for daily duty had, in many instances, been exceeded. For example, the parish of Thuries, in the county of Tipperary; in the accounts of that parish he found one item of between 35l. and 40l. for ornamental hangings within the church. Now, this was a work of decoration, not of necessity; and nine-tenths of the rate for it, let the House observe, was paid by Catholics, who had no interest in, nor any access to, the church at all [hear, hear]. In the county of Wexford, again, two parishes, ten miles distant from each other, had been united: here he found, among other, curious items, "Sexton and Beadle's salary," 10l., raised, in the year 1814, to 20l.; and a note affixed, stating that this increase had been given "because this practice of ringing funeral bells was discontinued, owing to the church haying no bell. "In the very next line of his list, He found "salary to parish clerk," so much; and so much more, "compensation to the former clerk for having been removed." In another instance, he found the charge of "20l. a year for an organist:" he knew of no right the vestry had to tax that parish for such a purpose. This very charge of 20l. stood, afterwards, in the year 1805, increased to 50l. "in consequence of the corporation having withdrawn its 30l. a year subscription, for want of funds." In the very next year, there came a new item—"for repairing the clock;" that expense, as well as the pay of the organist, having got transferred from the corporation to the parish. But these measures, so far, had been moderate, the really doubtful ones were yet to come. Castle Comber, in the county of Kilkenny. Among the charges against that parish, he found the following:—"To William Taylor, carpenter, for work done at the parish clerk's house, and at the school-house, 22l." Now, who did the House think this Taylor was? He was actually himself, both parish clerk and schoolmaster, receiving a salary of 10l. in the one capacity, and of 2l., with a gratuity of 6l., in another. In this same parish, in the same year, there was a charge of 37l. 8s. for church robes—this to be paid by a population, nineteen-twentieths of which were Catholic. In another case, the parish of Timmoul, in queen's county, a subscription appeared, and an honourable one, towards repairing the church, of 20l. from the rector, and 50l. from the marquis of Lansdown. With respect to Tuam, where the cathedral church was also the parish church, the statute which authorized the lord-lieutenant, in some cases, to unite a parish church with a cathedral church, had been, as regarded the union of Tuam, entirely abused. The law said "that whereas in certain dioceses of Ireland, the cathedral churches were so inconveniently situated that they could not be frequented for divine service, and were therefore suffered to fall into ruin and decay." Now, this could not apply to Tuam, which stood not "inconveniently," but in the middle of a town; but even where it did apply, he had very little doubt, that while the cathedrals went to decay, the dignitaries connected with them found means to collect and enjoy all the dues of their benefices. But the statute went on to say, that where this decay existed, and there seemed to be no probability of repair for want of funds, there the union with the parish church might take place, half the expense of repair to be defrayed out of the economy fund of the cathedral, and the other half by the parish. Now, he repeated, that the conditions of Tuam cathedral could not justify this union at all; but still more, the expense of repair was now defined, not the half, but the whole of it, by the parish. It might be worth while to consider hereafter the treatment to which the persons who had petitioned against this measure had been subjected; but at present he would go on to the expenses charged against that parish, almost every item of which was in violation of the statute. To begin, the salary of the parish clerk was 20 guineas, 20l. being the highest rate, in any case, allowed by law. There was a sexton at 10l., with an addition to that allowance in 1818. But the most curious charge was, "For twelve quarto prayer-books for the church, 12 guineas." "For two bound in morocco, for the communion," so much. "For eight smaller ones," so much more. There was scarcely a Protestant went into the church but bad a prayer-book at the cost of the parish! With respect to the collection of the assessment, a Roman Catholic gentleman had offered to collect it for 20l. This proposal had been rejected, and it had been given to some one else at 30l. The effect of all this was, that the parish rate, which had in 1812 been twopence farthing in the pound, was now sevenpence. Could any man doubt that there was a necessity for control over proceedings like these, when four or five Protestants were taxing the whole parish in any way they pleased? Against the parish of St. Peter, Drogheda, there was charged, "An organist, 50l. a year;" "A boy to assist the organist, 5l. a year;" "To the tuner of the organ, 10l." The parish clerk was paid 30l.; the sexton had 24l., raised in 1818 to 31l. Then for rebuilding the house of the parish-clerk and sexton, 429l. 9s. Had any body ever heard before of a parish building houses for a clerk and sexton? And at such a cost as 429l. And this was not all, for actually, in 1823, there was, "for improving the clerk's house," a charge of 33l. A further item of 16l. 11s. appeared for wax candles. And for wine for the sacrament, from the year 1812 to the present time, from 21l. to 36l. annually. It was under these circumstances, that he had thought it his duty to bring forward the present measure. The parish of St. George, Dublin, had been regulated a good deal by a special act of parliament; but in that parish, the burthen of the rates was producing the most serious mischief. Houses, in consequence of the assessments on them, remained without tenants; and as the dues went on all this while accumulating, when a house had been two or three years unoccupied, the amount of the back rate made it impossible to take it Now, in St. George's parish, the building of the church, which had been estimated at 16,000l., had been swelled to 57,000l. A great part of that sum had been raised upon interest, which was now a heavy burthen upon the parishioners, and the trustees for the building had contrived to be exempt from any audit of their accounts. The necessity for a change must be obvious to every man. His wish was, that where vestries were held for building or repairing churches, or for choosing parish officers, they should not have power to go into any other matter; and that, at all vestries held for purposes of a general description, Catholics as well as Protestants should be entitled to assist.

Mr. Goulburn

felt no disposition to oppose the bill; for, to satisfy all parties, the readiest course was investigation. The established church must be maintained in Ireland; and maintained, as to all expenses that were necessary, by the population; but, as far as the correction of abuse could go, if abuse existed, the present measure should have his best assistance. With respect to the particular instances, he was not prepared to go into them; but he had already looked through the returns, and, before any further discussion took place, would endeavour to attend to them more fully.

Leave was given to bring in the bill.